Five tips for leading a virtual team during a time of crisis

 |   Microsoft Indonesia

virtual team

It’s been nearly two months since many employees began to work from home, leaving their desk at the office for the kitchen table or living room couch at home.  With the mandated social distancing, it’s been a challenge for many managers to quickly adapt to a new way of remote working.

We thought we’d share a post by Sarah Fisher, General Manager, HR, EMEA at Microsoft, based on her experience on working with virtual teams. Hope this helps! 

For many businesses, their normal day-to-day reality has been based in a traditional office setting. So, with the move to social distancing, it’s hard for many workers to quickly adapt to a new way of remote working. This includes managers and leaders who face the challenge of not only making sure core business objectives are met in times of increased uncertainty, but also ensuring their teams stay cohesive and engaged during a stressful time.

As the HR leader of a large group of employees across EMEA, I’ve worked with virtual teams for many years. I wanted to share what I have learned for people who find themselves leading teams that suddenly became virtual during these challenging times:   

  1. Define the new rules of engagement

Working virtually may not be new to all companies – certainly at Microsoft, it has been a part of our culture for years. However, the challenges we all face during this pandemic present a lot of uncharted territory for everyone. For example, many people are now juggling working from home with childcare, as an increasing number of schools have shut. With social distancing measures, team members – particularly those living alone – may feel cut off from the world and lonely.

  • Talk with your team members, and check in with them to see how they are doing. Don’t assume you understand their new reality. Ask questions and listen.
  • Be accommodating when you can in terms of how they perform their role, and encourage everyone to prioritize ruthlessly – focusing on the activities that bring the most value back to the business in these times. And, regardless, always convey empathy.
  • Encourage transparency and open communication among your team. This is an area where managers can really lead from the front. If your work day has to adapt for childcare needs, and you have to deviate from a normal 9-5 type schedule, let your team know your adjusted hours. Be clear that you don’t expect immediate responses if you’re sending email very early in the day or late in the evening.   
  1. Keep the human connection

For any team to be effective, there has to be trust and genuine human connection. For teams now working remotely, this is even more important.

One big – but simple – thing leaders can do is to encourage the use of video for calls, whether it’s one-on-one or a group call. Again, lead from the front. You don’t even need to ask people to turn their videos on. People will follow suit. This is something I want to be better at myself because with video, you can make eye contact and see people’s expressions, which will not only help you communicate better, it will make you feel more connected as a team. The ability to see people will help you better gauge what’s not being said. As an additional benefit, it will ensure people are actively listing and taking part.

For one-on-ones and team calls, lead each discussion by asking people how they are doing, or asking what’s on their minds, work related or not – rather than just diving into the standard agenda. Depending on the size of your team, you may want to set up a separate time at the beginning and/or the end of the week just as a ‘general check-in.’

Leaders have a real opportunity to open up dialogue and strengthen their team’s connection by showing their own vulnerability. For example, if you’re worried about the well-being of a friend or family member, don’t be afraid to say so. If you’re feeling lower-energy because you miss the buzz of the office and seeing everyone each day, it’s okay to express this. It will encourage others to share their feelings and will ultimately help build a team that’s more trusting and tighter-knit. 

  1. Make room for fun

When you’re in an office environment, it’s easy to have a little chat by the proverbial watercooler or share a joke when you pass someone in the hallway. When you’re all working virtually, leaders who make an intentional effort to ensure team members feel connected on a personal level will benefit from a more cohesive and engaged team.

Simple initiatives and gestures go a long way. For example, you might start a dedicated Teams channel just for sharing funny photo and gifs among your team. As part of a regular standing call, you might have an ‘employee of week’ moment where someone introduces their child or a pet. If it’s someone’s birthday, schedule an ambiguous call and surprise them with a rendition of Happy Birthday. Yes, it will probably sound horrible, but it will get definitely get people smiling and feeling like a real team. 

  1. Don’t forget about the power of learning and development  

Deprioritizing training during busy or stressful periods is a trap many leaders can fall into. Don’t. Yes, having the right training available to your staff can ensure they’re honing in on the hard and soft skills they need to be the most effective at their jobs. However, the benefits go far beyond.

When companies create cultures where people are encouraged to participate in training, you see an increase not only in performance but employee engagement too. We conducted a survey last year among thousands of workers in Europe examining the intersection of company culture, leadership and technology. In this research, we found a significant difference between employees in companies that promoted training and those working for companies where training was seen as less important.

  • More effective: 82% of those in training cultures say their team can get a lot done when they put their minds to it – versus 66% among those with cultures that don’t prioritize training
  • Greater customer-centricity: 59% of people in companies that emphasize training say there’s a real outward focus in their business – this drops to 31% among low-training cultures
  • Overall satisfaction: 77% of people in companies that emphasize training say they would reapply to their job – compared to only 58% of those in organization where training isn’t as prioritized

Training doesn’t need to be expensive or elaborate. For example, you might set up a recurring virtual lunch-and-learn session where colleagues who have had success on a particular project share key learnings. 

  1. Take care of yourself

You can’t be there 100% for your team if you’re not replenishing your own energy levels each day.

If you’re new to working from home on a regular basis, it can be a struggle to maintain your normal routines. Make sure you’re taking time every day to do things that you find personally fulfilling, whether it’s yoga, reading, or cooking. Resist the urge just to throw yourself into work to get your mind off of the stresses that come during times of crisis. Set a time where you shut your laptop down, or close the door to your home office. Being always-on is simply not sustainable. If you burnout, you suffer and your team suffers. People work best when they have a leader who brings positive energy to the challenges that crop up every day.

Talking to mentor or coach can be a fantastic way to get perspective, even in the best of times. So, if you don’t have that type of relationship in your professional life, reach out to someone you admire and respect and see if they would be open to fostering that kind of relationship. The vast majority of people genuinely love to help others, and receiving a request like this is one of the most flattering things that can happen to a person. So don’t be shy in asking.

This is a tough time for us all. But as leaders, I think it’s an opportunity for us to zoom out – looking at our old habits more objectively, as well as the impact of cultivating new ways of working and how we shape our team culture.

The bottom line: it’s never been more important for leaders to strengthen their empathy muscle, ensure they are taking the time to listen to their team members and to lead by example.